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Again, there's WNY scent to Rose Parade pageantry; Floats are the focus as Wittman judges

When millions of Americans tune in Jan. 2 to watch the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., Hamburg native Bryan C. Wittman will be viewing the marching bands, equestrians and 43 floats with a different eye.

He's judging them.

Wittman, an executive with Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, was chosen as one of three judges for the 123rd parade, part of the annual Tournament of Roses culminating in the Rose Bowl college football game, this time between Oregon and Wisconsin.

Together with his fellow panelists, Wittman will decide which floats and sponsors are worthy of a coveted award.

"It's a part of American heritage. It's one of the greatest traditions in America," he said. "So to grow up in Western New York and now be going to Los Angeles and Pasadena to judge the Rose Parade, it's a great honor and a lot of fun."

Perhaps even more significantly, this is the second time in five years that he has been selected for the role -- a very rare honor for anyone. Wittman was also a judge for the 2008 parade.

"It appears that, throughout history, I'm one of only maybe one other person that's been asked to come back twice," Wittman said during an interview in Buffalo last week. "So it's a special honor."

The three judges each bring unique expertise to their roles. One brings an artistic background, while another has floral experience. Wittman's job is to evaluate the floats for their entertainment value and for their success in marketing this year's theme for the parade: "Just Imagine "

"It's a great theme," Wittman said. "I'm walking in with really high expectations this year. I'm hoping these guys just blow me away."

And as Disney's vice president of global special events, he brings a special background to the job that appears well-suited to both floats and imagination.

After all, he oversees and leads the creative and production teams for all the big special events for Disney theme parks and cruise ships around the world. In particular, his responsibility includes the design of Disney's own parade floats -- including for the Rose Parade.

"We've done opening shows for the parade. We've done floats for the parade," he said. "I've done the longest float, the tallest float, [and] we've broken some records."

But he won't being judging a Disney float, which would have created a conflict of interest. In 2008, Disney voluntarily agreed not to have its float judged, Wittman said. This year, it's a moot point, as the company didn't even enter a float.

"It's just a coincidence that we're not putting one in the parade," he said. "It had nothing to do with me being a judge."

In their jobs, Wittman and his fellow judges will be asked to review all of the floats in advance of the parade and evaluate them from their three different perspectives.

Once they arrive in Pasadena, they will receive two days of training in the process and will then spend two more days making their list and checking it twice -- literally, since they will see the floats on the first day, compare notes and deliberate that evening, and then go back and look again the next day.

They first have to agree on the criteria for the awards, and will then spend hours debating the merits of each float, scoring them, trading points and making their final decisions, before the awards are announced at 5 a.m. -- just three hours before the start of the parade.

"It's quite a lengthy process," said Wittman, a graduate of St. Francis High School in Athol Springs and Ashland University in Ohio. "We have to start somewhere, and then we'll negotiate among us to make a decision. They are known to go into the wee hours of the morning. It's a tough negotiation."

The competition features about two dozen awards, but they're subjective in nature, and many of the honors are very similar, with only a word or two distinguishing one from another -- such as "use of color" versus "extraordinary use of color." That makes it extra challenging, Wittman said, to consider which floats merit which prizes.

"It puts a lot of pressure on you. You really want to make sure you're doing a good job of awarding the appropriate float with the right award," Wittman said. "But it's a great process, and it's fun to be a part of something that's been around for over 123 years."

Wittman, who said he has "had a passion" for the entertainment business since he was a sixth-grader, began his pursuit in high school with theater groups and musical activities at St. Francis. He also started working for the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, "doing anything I could to learn" before going to Ashland University to study television entertainment.

After college, he worked at the Darien Lake theme park, before joining Marriott Corp. in marketing for its theme parks in Chicago and California. He also toured with Dorothy Hamill and the Ice Capade before Disney recruited him in 1985.

Wittman said he looks for floats that display "some great, extraordinary creativity" and storytelling that relate to the parade's theme, as well as whether they're entertaining.

"Are people going to enjoy it? Are they going to have fun?" he asks. "I get pretty critical, which is my job."